The Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group that includes former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and several former Latin American presidents, is expected to announce soon that the “war on drugs” has been a failure. The Mexican government states that since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006 and implemented a crackdown, trafficking has been a factor in 35,000 deaths, and drug-related corruption is out of control. In the United States, which has the world's highest levels of use, the NGO Drug Policy Alliance estimates that official bodies spend $51 billion a year fighting drugs. The political context is also significant. In India, regions like the Northeast reveal connections between conflict and opportunities for trafficking, as also between injected drugs and HIV/AIDS transmission. Furthermore, law and policy are no deterrents; research on cannabis use has found that the most important factor is the social context. With illegal drugs now a major source of income for organised crime, governments cannot curb the trade and often resort to torture and extra-judicial killings. State agencies also seem to deal in deadly drugs. The crashes in Latin America of two aircraft used by the CIA for the rendition of terrorism suspects for torture elsewhere revealed cargoes totalling four tonnes of cocaine.
The human cost of the failed war on drugs is incalculable, and the need for radical new approaches can no longer be denied. The main international instrument, the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, has no enforcement mechanism and is almost toothless. Legalisation is controversial, with few politicians ready to support it publicly. Fortunately, a broad consensus across ideological lines is emerging in the form of decriminalisation, which makes drug use an administrative violation but treats trafficking as a criminal offence. In Portugal, the only European Union state to legislate to this effect, it has been assessed as an undisputed success. Drug use and drug-related deaths and diseases have declined over the last decade, and the use of harm-reduction services has increased greatly. Several Latin American countries — which have been ravaged by the drug trade — as well as some EU states and a few regional governments elsewhere have got good results from de facto decriminalisation. The strategy may, however, encounter resistance from powerful vested interests, including police and other security forces, politicians fearful of public disapproval, and drug cartels. The Global Commission's statement will be awaited with interest, as it could signal an overdue change in the world's attitude to drugs.